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Church's Sex Abuse Policy Is Revised

Team of U.S. bishops and Vatican officials rework 'zero-tolerance' rules. The speed of the agreement catches some by surprise.

October 31, 2002|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

The Vatican and a team of U.S. Roman Catholic bishops have agreed on revisions to the American "zero-tolerance" policy on sexual abuse that will settle Vatican concerns about protecting the rights of accused priests, church officials announced Wednesday.

The announcement, coming after just two days of closed-door meetings at the Vatican, caught many American Catholic leaders by surprise.

Details of the revisions were not made public or immediately given either to the U.S. bishops as a whole or to Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, chairman of the bishops National Review Board on sexual abuse, which is charged with overseeing the implementation of the U.S. policy.

Instead, the four U.S. bishops who negotiated the revisions with four Vatican officials plan to present them to the full U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for approval when the group meets in Washington for a regularly scheduled meeting Nov. 11. The U.S. bishops approved the zero-tolerance policy, formally known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, at a special meeting in Dallas in June.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, one of the negotiators, sought to reassure American Catholics that the "goals" of protecting minors and punishing abusive priests remain in place. At the same time, he said in a written statement released in Rome, the revisions would meet the Vatican's concerns that the U.S. policy as originally written could abridge the rights of priests that are set out in the church's canon law.

"We believe that the goals of the Dallas decision, i.e. to protect minors and to reach out to victims, have been preserved and that the Dallas documents have been completed in elaborating normative procedures that respect the rights of priests who have been accused," George's statement said.

A confidential fax announcing the agreement was dispatched Tuesday to all U.S. bishops by Bishop Wilton T. Gregory, president of the bishops conference. A bishop who received the fax said it contained no details but characterized its tone as "upbeat."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman in the U.S. bishops office in Washington, said there had been no drastic rewriting of the Dallas policy. The fact that the joint commission completed its work in just two days meant that "there was not a lot of work that had to be done," Walsh said. "They were tweaking the norms."

But the speed of the negotiations and the secrecy surrounding them are causing advocates for victims of sexual abuse to worry. The fact that the eight-member commission had finished its work in just two days of Vatican meetings was "not a good sign," said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

"We obviously argued that the U.S. bishops should fight tooth and nail to preserve the Dallas charter, and it was pretty clear the Vatican wanted it weakened," Clohessy said. "We're just pessimistic."

"It's creative and desperate spin-doctoring going on to define these changes as tweaking rather than substantive changes," Clohessy said. "I'd love to be proven wrong."

Others cautioned against reading too much into the speed of the talks. In Chicago, Father Andrew Greeley, a Catholic columnist and author who early on was an outspoken critic of the bishops' handling of the sexual abuse crisis, said he took Cardinal George at his word that the policy had not been greatly weakened.

"They couldn't have had too much to argue about," Greeley said. "I don't see Francis George backing off from the basic premises."

U.S. bishops approved their zero-tolerance policy in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal that has engulfed the church in the United States. As many as 300 priests have either been removed from ministry or have retired early after accusations that they had sexually abused minors. Dozens nationwide are now facing prosecution.

The crisis has cost dioceses millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements with the victims. At the Dallas meeting, bishops said the accusations that the church hierarchy had failed to protect children from sexual predators -- often moving accused priests from one diocese to another -- had eroded their moral credibility. Many bishops and priests have called the crisis the worst ever to face the church in America.

The Dallas charter said that any "credible" accusation of sexual abuse of a minor -- past, present or future -- by any priest, deacon or other church worker would result in the accused person being immediately removed from the ministry.

If the accusation proves groundless, the accused person can be restored to the ministry. But any church worker who admits to abuse or is found guilty is to be permanently removed from ministry. Priests would also be subject to being ousted from the priesthood, known in the church as being removed from the clerical state.

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